The fate of 21 people abducted by Filipino Muslim rebels hung in the balance yesterday, with the hostages, who include 10 foreign tourists, traced to a remote island in the southern Philippines and their kidnappers reported to be demanding a ransom of 100 million pesos (£1.5m).
In a day of fast-moving developments, the group of captives - taken from a Malaysian resort island on Sunday - was sighted on Jolo island, in Sulu province, a lawless region notorious for pirates, bandits and religious insurgents.
Philippine naval, air force and army units were deployed in preparation for a rescue attempt, but the authorities in Manila were still hoping to secure the release of the hostages through negotiation.
There is little doubt that the hostages are being held by rebels connected to Abu Sayyaf, the smaller of two guerrilla organisations fighting for an independent Muslim state in the southern Philippines. Two of them, who are Malaysians, are expected to be freed shortly because they are Muslims.
The Philippine Defence Minister, Orlando Mercado, said yesterday that the group had been located near the town of Talipao, 600 miles south of Manila, in the Sulu Sea. Local officials had "indicated to us that they are alive", he said, adding: "They are well. They don't look any worse than when they were taken."
Mr Mercado, who yesterday visited Jolo, a mountainous island which is one of the largest in the Sulu group, said of the captors: "We don't know for sure, but these personalities are a mixture of Abu Sayyaf and former [rebels] and are known for kidnap for ransom."
Military forces have been sent to secure the area around Talipao, on Jolo, part of an impoverished group of islands.
The hostages - three Germans, two South Africans, two Finns, two French tourists and one Lebanese woman, plus one Filipino and 10 Malaysians - are believed to have been taken to Jolo shortly after being seized from a resort on Sipadan Island, in Malaysia's Sabah state, off the coast of Borneo island. On Jolo, a stronghold of Abu Sayyaf, the hostages were split into two groups and moved from one hideout to another to avoid detection, Mr Mercado said. They are reportedly being held under the command of a guerrilla leader known as Commander Robot, who police say is notorious locally.
A military report said there were 15 kidnappers, not six, as reported earlier by Malaysian and Philippine officials. They are said to comprise 12 Malay-speaking people, two speakers of Tausug, a southern Philippine language, and one person of Caucasian appearance.
Abu Sayyaf rebels are currently under attack in their stronghold on nearby Basilan island by government troops who are trying to rescue 27 Filipinos, mainly schoolchildren, who have been held hostage for more than five weeks.
Joseph Estrada, the President of the Philippines, yesterday appointed Nur Misuari, head of the Moro National Liberation Front, to be the government's negotiator with the kidnappers. The MNLF, once the country's largest Muslim rebel group, signed a treaty with the government in 1996.
Five more people were arrested in Sabah by Malaysian police, in addition to five detained on Tuesday on suspicion of abetting the abductions. According to military officers, kidnapping for ransom has become a lucrative sideline in recent years for separatist rebels. "One day they are Abu Sayyaf, the next morning they are bandits, the next they are pirates," one officer said.
Although the Philippine head of military intelligence, Major General Jose Calimlim, confirmed that the hostages had not been harmed, there were fears for their safety. Abu Sayyaf rebels have not shied away from violence in the past. Last week they claimed to have beheaded two of their captives on Basilan because the government had failed to meet their demands: the release of two Islamic extremists in jail in the United States, including the mastermind of the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993.
Mr Mercado said he did not know whether the abductions from Sipadan were related to the military assault on the Abu Sayyaf base on Basilan. Asked how quickly the situation with the Malaysian group could be resolved, he replied: "Only God can determine how soon it will be over. Our basic consideration is the safety of the hostages. At the same time, we hope we will bring an end to this kidnap for ransom gang. They have obviously extended their evil intent into neighbouring countries."